Iraq’s Kurds Run to Moscow after Iran Warns of Kirkuk’s Loss for Their Referendum
Tehran has threatened military force against the independence referendum which the semiautonomous Kurdish Regional Republic of Iraq (KRG) has scheduled for Sept. 25.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources revealing this, report that a final harsh warning from Tehran reached the KRG President Masoud Barzani this week in Irbil.
Since June 6, when Barzani announced the referendum, he has come under savage arm-twisting, especially from Iran, to indefinitely postpone the event. But his determination to finally take his people on the last step towards independence has only stiffened further.
The Iranians made their intentions bluntly clear. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Al Qods chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, secretly called on the KRG’s Intelligence and Security Chief Masrour Barzani this week and delivered the following notice: “If the Kurdish popular referendum takes place as scheduled, pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias will advance on the Kurdish cities in dispute between Irbil and Baghdad and attack them." He was referring to Tuz Khumatu in the central District of Salahadin Province, 55km south of the oil city of Kirkuk, as well as Kirkuk itself.
Soleimani did not bother to deny that Tehran saw this as an opportunity to grab the Kurdish-held oil fields of Kirkuk and northern Iraq. He intimated that the Popular Mobilization Units and the Badar Brigades, two Iraqi armed militias under Iran’s thumb, would lead the offensive against the KRG.
A Kurdish delegation which visited Tehran in the third week of July was warned that the referendum would cost Irbil dear in its relations with Iran, Turkey and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Mala Bakhtiar, a high official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, who was a member of the delegation, retorted that the Kurdish people are fully entitled to exercise their right to self-determination. But he was told, “We don’t accept the referendum in any shape form and so don’t expect good things from us.” The Kurds countered that Iraq had a century of opportunity to build a united national identify for all Iraqis, but had failed to do so.
DEBKA Weekly reports that the two Kurdish encounters with Iranian officials ended in total impasse and left the impression that a military showdown involving Iran, Irbil and Baghdad, was not be far off.
We can reveal that President Barzani, after being briefed on Soleimani’s warning by his intelligence chief, decided on four steps::
1. The KRG president first sent an urgent note to President Donald Trump asking for a clear answer as to how the United States would help the Kurds fight off an Iranian military attack. He asked the White House to direct Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of US forces in Syria and Iraq, to coordinate operations between US forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in the defense of Kirkuk and its oilfields.
Barzani reminded Trump that he acceded to a request for help in operations against ISIS when it was presented to him in Irbil on April 4 by the US president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner along with the Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff.
In private conversations, US officers were reminded that the Peshmerga had lost 1,750 dead and more than 10,000 injured in US-led operations against ISIS in Raqqa and Mosul.
2. Barzani also asked Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to intercede with Iran’s leaders and convince them to call off their threat of military action against Kurdish cities.
3. He also issued an instruction to strengthen the direct, private ties he had recently begun cultivating with Syrian ruler Bashar Assad.
4. The Kurdish leader’s most significant – and potentially most practical – step was his approach to President Vladimir Putin with a tempting proposition: The grant of a profitable foothold for the Russian oil giant Rosneft in Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk oil facilities in the face of European Union sanctions against Moscow over its intervention in Ukraine. Russia would be allowed to invest in developing the oil fields and a new transport system from northern Iraq to the Mediterranean via Syria, in place of the pipeline network running to Turkey.
For the Kurds, this option, if picked up by Putin, would be a win-win. Iran would never dare touch oil facilities in which Russia had a stake. And in any case, Moscow would safeguard any investments it made with robust security. Russia might even use for Kirkuk the mercenaries recently hired from Wagner contractors for frontline service in Syria.
DEBKA Weekly reveals that Barzani’s turn to Moscow, almost a last resort, followed the Trump administration’s lukewarm response to his SOS.. Washington advised the Kurdish leader to try and reach an accommodation with Tehran before the US decided how to act.
Erdogan’s reply was so muddled and opaque that Barzani could only make out one point: Turkey preferred to stay clear of the dispute between Irbil and Tehran.